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July 18th, 2011 and Symphony: Did IBM Do the Right Thing?

As soon as Oracle announced they were offering to The Apache Software Foundation, there went up a collective sigh of relief from the FOSS community. Some, no doubt, would have preferred the project to be turned over to the folks at The Document Foundation, whose members had worked with the code for the better part of a decade and who’d already done a bang-up job improving OOo with their fork LibreOffice, but you don’t always get what you want, and Apache is an open source organization not lacking in credibility. At least now OpenOffice is out of the hands of Larry Ellison, who is a friend to open source the same way that a fox is a friend to a chicken.

Along with that sigh of relief, however, red flags began to fly in the FOSS blogosphere because IBM had a hand in Oracle’s decision. Experience has taught open sourcers to be suspicious, and there was plenty of fodder here to make one wary of Big Blue’s possible motives, mostly revolving around IBM Lotus Symphony, the freeware suite that utilizes OpenOffice code. Since the permissive open source Apache License allows a commingling with proprietary code in a way strictly forbidden by the GPL and its derivatives, it was feared that OOo would be neglected as IBM and Oracle focused their efforts on proprietary add-ons to create non-free versions of OpenOffice.

This assumption was problematic. IBM has a history of being a pretty good FOSS player, having dropped more than a billion dollars into Linux development and who-knows-how-many bucks into other open source projects. Besides, it doesn’t matter. All indications are that development at LibreOffice, licensed under the LGPLv3, will quickly leave OOo in the dust, even if development does continue with the free version of OpenOffice.

However, when IBM announced last Wednesday that they were not only lining-up behind OpenOffice, but were throwing the code from Symphony into Apache’s lap and would be helping to fold some of it into OOo, it might have been easy to assume that predictions were coming true, that Oracle and IBM were teaming up to slap the FOSS community in the face.

You know what they say about assumptions.

I very certainly could be wrong, but it appears to me that this is about the the best possible move IBM could make. It’s good for their own interests, good for FOSS and good for the casual computer user who only wants to be able to write a term paper and/or balance a checkbook.

When the OpenOffice/LibreOffice fork occurred last September, IBM was noticeably MIA, even as practically every important FOSS player was bending over backwards to come-out in support of The Document Foundation. Novell, Red Hat, Canonical and Google immediately jumped on board, and soon afterward nearly all Linux distros dropped OpenOffice to proclaim LibreOffice as the new standard bearer open source office productivity suite.

IBM was about the only exception.

Big Blue was in what I imagine to be a very uncomfortable position. They sell servers almost exclusively to businesses, many of which are purchased to run Oracle’s stack. For obvious reasons, pissing Ellison off by publicly choosing LibreOffice over OpenOffice wouldn’t be a good business move. Falling in line to support OOo would seem to be the only next move they could make. Quite frankly, it seems to be a move that will benefit everybody.

True, if they’d thrown their lot in with The Document Foundation they would’ve become instant open source heroes. Just as true however, by supporting OpenOffice instead, and by making the Symphony code available under the Apache license, they are actually maximizing the amount of support they’re giving to the open source community as a whole, even if it doesn’t make them popular heroes like Pancho and Lefty. The Apache License will allow LibreOffice to use the code and relicense it under the LGPL. If IBM had taken the other route, giving Symphony to The Document Foundation, OpenOffice would not be able to benefit from the Symphony code, only LibreOffice would gain.

This move helps both projects. It also allows IBM to keep things cool with Oracle, which is necessary for their business, and it keeps Symphony under a license that allows them to use practically any proprietary add-on they want, which is good for them even if you and I have mixed feelings about it. In other words, it would seem to be a win-win solution.

Unless they do something that proves me wrong, I’m impressed with how IBM has handled this.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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7 comments to and Symphony: Did IBM Do the Right Thing?

  • kelly

    I don’t understand how could IBM “keep cool” with Oracle if Oracle is dumping the product and has no value for Oracle at all. This is not very good assumption.

    Oracle (at Sun times) had agreement with IBM to get the code in some public unknown conditions.

  • Kelly, if you’re saying that Oracle should’ve given OOo to The Document Foundation instead of Apache, I agree wholeheartedly. It certainly looks like LibreOffice is the future and OOo is the past.

  • Richard

    While I believe that Oracle just wanted to stop spending money on something that they could not foresee any monetary return from, I think IBM did see the value from it and lobbied Oracle to assign the brand and code to Apache in order to realize what you stated so well in the 3rd from the last paragragh:

    “Just as true however, by supporting OpenOffice instead, and by making the Symphony code available under the Apache license, they are actually maximizing the amount of support they’re giving to the open source community as a whole,….”

    I think IBM found a win-win outcome for all concerned.

    I believe that LibreOffice will continue and will Leave the original OpenOffice behind, but LibreOffice can still utilize any code from OOo. I believe that code from LibreOffice is still backwardly compatible with the Apache license which allows a delayed, two-way flow of code between both FOSS organizations.

    All in all, IBM seems to have accomplished something for everybody. Now, everybody just choose who they wish to support and get back to work. For me, LibreOffice.

  • Hi Richard. Thanks for your comments.

    Actually, GPL’d code isn’t compatible with the Apache license. Code can go from OpenOffice to LibreOffice, but not the other way around.

  • Patrick

    Very nice article Christine! Even if there is not that much code that flows from OO to LO the competition will certainly make LO better.

  • dbmuse

    Choice is a good thing. Having two versions gives choice and competition. I like any flavor but Microsoft.

  • Company

    The article fails to focus on the effect the IBM code dump will have on OO development. The OO comunity and what is left of its developers now have to comb thorugh literally millions of lines of code in order to choose what to integrate into OO. even after they do all the work LO can simply piggy back on their work and there is nothing OO can do about it. If Symphony has any features worth including, LO will use them. In the mean time any improvements LO creates will remain unavailable to OO. This code dump, while generous in theory, will only have the effect of further slowing OO development and ultimately benefiting LO more than OO. IMHO, apache should ultimately just merge OO back into LO and continue development under GPL. These aren’t competing products (like MS Office), they are extremely similar versions of the same thing. Bifurcating the development power is a wasteful use of resources and in the end I seriously doubt that the market is big enough to accommodate both.